Over the next two weeks, some 5,000 people will fill the sanctuaries at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., to pray, worship and remember their spiritual roots.
"Rosh Hashana is a time of renewal, and it's a time of reconnecting with what really matters for us as a Jewish people," Rabbi Gil Steinlauf says.
The Jewish New Year is a time of spiritual awe — and practical considerations. Unlike churches, most synagogues charge membership dues to keep the lights on and fund the programs, because they are autonomous and do not receive funding from a national body.
"The bread and butter of how you make a synagogue run is membership dues, that's how it works," he says. "Obviously, we also engage in fundraising, but to keep the lights on and to keep everything running on a weekly and daily basis, we run on the dues that come in from memberships."
And this year, the staff is a bit worried.
"It's as bad as I've seen in my 30-some odd years doing this," says Glenn Easton, the synagogue's executive director and finance officer. Easton says the recession is hitting everyone, even in this relatively wealthy congregation.
"More lawyers are out of work, more business owners are out of work — people who are in categories of employment who have been extremely generous over the years," he says, are unable to be as generous as in previous years.
As a result, many are not showing up, embarrassed they can't give as they did before. Easton tells everyone that they do not need to pay dues, or their full dues, to participate, although Jewish tradition has it that everyone should give of themselves whatever they can. So, Easton says, the synagogue is thinking about ways people can contribute other than by giving money — for example, unemployed lawyers contributing legal advice, or contractors doing repairs.
He has no doubt Adas Israel will do just fine. Others may not fare as well, says Rabbi Dan Judson, who teaches at Hebrew College Rabbinical School and is an expert on the history of money and synagogues.
"What I think a recession does is exacerbate a trend," Judson says. "If you're in a synagogue that has been hanging on — that is, you've managed to maintain some membership but it's slowly declining as people are moving into the city, or moving to another town — in better economic times, you're able to survive. But at a time when it's hard for people to dig deep into their pockets, those synagogues are left fewer options."
Judson sees parallels with the Great Depression: membership dropping off, a sort of spiritual malaise, particularly among Reform and Conservative Jews. And as in the Depression, fragile congregations are having to take drastic action. For example, Judson says some synagogues are replacing their rabbis and searching for others who can energize the congregation.
"Some synagogues are selling their building, trying to move to a model where they don't have a capital cost, but are renting from churches, renting from community centers. Some synagogues are making the hard decision and thinking about: Is this the time that we stop being a synagogue?"
And other congregations are merging.
Just before the holidays, Rabbi Peter Levi was showing off his refurbished synagogue, Temple Beth El, in Orange County, Calif. He paused at the kitchen.
"We have two kitchens, one upstairs and one downstairs, so this is our kosher dairy kitchen."
The reason they have two kitchens is that Beth El merged last year with another nearby synagogue, Congregation Eilat. Over time, Congregation Eilat lost members. The members couldn't afford its mortgage, and they asked Levi's congregation to let them in. Levi says it was bittersweet for them.
"It was very painful for them," Levi says. Despite all the "warm fuzzies" and enthusiastic welcome his congregation gave them, "it was a very difficult and painful decision to make — but ultimately they knew it was one they had to make in order to continue."
He and others say synagogue mergers are happening across the country. But what's extraordinary about this one is that Beth El is a Reform congregation and Eilat is Conservative. And that's why they have two kitchens — one kosher, one not — and why they have two different sanctuaries so the congregations can worship in their own way.
"Half my colleagues think I'm utterly crazy, and half think it's fabulous," Levi says.
It's complicated, he says, but it's working. And the merger has given him a solid two-year cushion for his budget.
"I think this is really part of the way of the future even if the economy gets phenomenally healthy, and will be a model for a lot of communities out there."
One thing is certain: The recession is prompting synagogues to do some soul-searching about how they pay their bills, even during the most sacred of holidays.